Good grief, it’s another anniversary! We’re slightly late to this one, but only by months. The BMW E46 3 Series was launched in April 1998. Who remembers the “DNA” adverts? To think, we have moved on another three generations now, but some are still saying that the E46 was the best.
The E46 3 Series: A classic in the making
That’s nonsense, of course. There is better, and there is preferable. I’m not immune to the charms of the E46 3 Series, and I’ve owned and driven several. My first was a 320d Touring bought from BMW at a year old. It was very good, and I only sold it because I had to be sensible. I traded it in at the same BMW dealership for a slightly older 840Ci. Well, it was just sitting there, and I can resist everything except temptation.
I’m old enough to recall BMW 2002s and E21s. My father worked for BMW and brought home a very early E30 323i just after Christmas 1982, two or three months before the UK launch. So, E30s have an emotional attachment. But progress marches on, and the 1991 E36 was almost a Concorde moment for BMW. Sure, some of the trim wasn’t that great on early cars, but just look at what else was for sale in ’91. An Audi 90? Just forget it.
Needless to say, I became an E36 fanboy and went on the 1995 launch of the revised 323i and 328i cars in Southern Spain. Could BMW ever beat this? Well, yes, they could.
In 1996, the E39 5 Series arrived, and at the time it was considered the perfect all-round car by many. I always enjoyed my time in them. Now, if only BMW made that car but a size down. We want the same interior, the same switchgear quality, the same refinement, and that general “we’ve thought of everything” kind of vibe. What BMW did was to refine the E36 with a splash of E39, and the basic layout of the E46 is the same as the 1991, complete with the rear Z axle.
Audi had stolen a march in 1995 with the frankly excellent first-generation A4, a car which, although not quite as sharp to drive as an E36, had it beaten for interior finish and general loveliness. I’m not an Audi fan at all, but I was taken aback at just how complete it was. From the basic 1.6 to the 2.8 Quattro, this was now the car to beat.
The E46 3 Series: The best BMW I’ve ever driven?
My first drives of the E46 3 Series were invariably of the four-cylinder hire car variety. In fact, it was a black 318i saloon rented from Hamburg Flughafen via Sixt. It was a basic one too, with steel wheels, cloth seats, manual air conditioning controls, and a cassette player.
Of course, it was superb. This is the thing about cars: you need to drive the cheapest versions to really get the design, because a really good base model is a fine platform for the expensive versions. The 318i drove like a dream. It had a compliant ride, nice steering, a slick gearshift, and the driving position that BMW gets right every single time. I’d been concerned about the old M43 engine, albeit revised from a 1.8 liter into the much improved 1.9 liter TU version. An iron-block 8-valve engine wasn’t setting fire to much on paper compared to the multivalve Japanese stuff, but in reality, it was fine. BMW tuned it to give excellent mid-range torque, and you could really row it along. It felt and drove like a BMW, not a Honda.
Yes, the 320i with the six was smoother and sweeter, if not much faster, the 323i kind of lost in no man’s land, and the 328i really quite brisk. From 2000, the newly M54-powered 325i and 330i were really handy, and the Coupe version…yes please. I never drove the M3 enough to form a valid opinion, but the 330Ci Coupe with the manual ‘box seemed fast enough back then.
BMW’s first “Devil’s Fuel” diesel
I talked about BMW diesels a while ago, but it was with the E46 that “Devil’s Fuel” BMWs really gained traction. The E36 diesels were okay—the 325tds was quite brisk and frugal, but the four-cylinder 318tds with its 90 horsepower, 1.655-liter engine was a missed opportunity. It was nicknamed the “318 Tedious” for a reason. But with the E46 3 Series, BMW introduced the 320d with its new 16-valve, 2.0-liter M47 engine. BMW winning the 1998 Nürburgring 24 Hours with such a car certainly gave notice of intent. In fact, I remember trying to get an indicated 150 miles per hour out of one of the revised 150 horsepower versions on the Autobahn back in 2002. I only managed to get up to 140, but it was a good effort.
These days, the E46 is courting with classic status, which to me means lots of money for old cars. As good as they were new, I find them a pain in old age, as the decisions taken to enable easier production rebound onto the mechanic fixing them.
The E90 took some getting used to back in 2005, but the following years’ E92 Coupe was the one that made me forget all about the older car. What a pretty car! And then we had the first 4 Series (I was just knocked out by the 428i). We move on, but I’ve said before that the best BMW you can buy is the one they’re making right now. Some marques claim heritage, but BMW have truly earned it.